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Where some statues go walkabout

Joan Woodward - 03/11/09


Christchurch people like to give their statues a change of scene occasionally. After his most recent move, Captain Cook surveys his new surroundings in Victoria Square, and Queen Victoria seems serene in her changed position of honour in the square.

The statue of John Robert Godley in 2009
The statue of John Robert Godley in 2009
Click here to view a larger version

In Cathedral Square, John Robert Godley, the founder of the Canterbury province, has had a few changes over the years. His statue was the work of celebrated English sculptor Thomas Woolner. It was commissioned in 1863 by the Memorial Committee soon after Godley's death, and it was cast in Russian gun metal recycled from the Crimean War.

Its first public appearance was at the South Kensington Museum, where it was exhibited and drew much praise. It arrived in Christchurch early in 1867 and was immediately the subject of "some little diversity of opinion" about its best location. Many people thought it should be placed in one of the triangles along High Street. Its present location, facing towards the site of the future Cathedral, was finally chosen.

The planned unveiling by the Governor of New Zealand had to be abandoned because the base of the statue when it arrived was larger than the specifications had stated. It would not fit on the Hoon Hay stone plinth which had been prepared with elaborately carved oak and fernleaf decorations by Christchurch sculptor William Brassington.

Another block of stone was obtained, and Brassington hastily prepared the existing plain and unadorned plinth.

The work took several weeks. In the meantime the Provincial Superintendent, James Fitzgerald who was to deliver the inaugural address had sailed for Wellington. So the Godley statue waited in the Square through the winter, shrouded in a canvas covering and causing a great deal of worry that the constant wet would corrode the bronze.

It was finally placed on its pedestal, mounted on three tiers of Hoon Hay stone steps. As the day for the unveiling approached B. W. Mountfort supervised the construction of a platform for the official party, along with two raised stands with seats and canvas covers for the ladies. An enclosure provided standing room for ticket holders. Outside this the crowds could gather to watch the ceremony.

August 6, 1867 was declared a public holiday in celebration. The day was fine and sunny, and the Volunteer Band led the procession into the Square just after midday. Dignitaries took their places on the platform, where the Resident Magistrate, the Hon C.C. Bowen, delivered the address, unveiled the statue, and handed it over to the guardianship of the City Council.

A Dr A. C. Barker photograph shows that there was quite a brisk breeze. The ladies in the stand on one side were doing battle with their umbrellas against the chilly wind, while the ones on the other side were seated in snug comfort.

There had been some competition for places on these stands. This notice appeared in the next day's newspaper: 'The Godley Statue. A misapprehension is current respecting the tickets issued for the stands at the ceremony of inauguration. It is said that first and second class tickets indicated inferiority of social position in the holders. We have authority for stating that such was not the case. The so-called second class tickets were those issued on the occasion and comprised 150 of about 180, the total number issued. The remaining 30 were issued to the committee and members of the General Assembly. Those stands were open to all who held tickets. The large body of citizens who absented themselves from the inauguration, or returned their tickets, were as mistaken as the rest."

Surrounded by an elegant wrought iron railing fence made by John Anderson's foundry, Godley gazed eastwards across the empty Square. In 1873, by and act of Parliament the Godley Statue Block became vested in the Queen, but nothing in the Act "was to authorise the removal of any interference to the statue of the late John Godley". This Act was repealed in 1878. At last in 1881 the Cathedral was built so that as the colonists gathered for Sunday Service the statue of their founder became part of the scene.

In 1904 a city councillor advocated the removal of the statue to Victoria Square, arguing that with the construction of the electric tramways there would be considerable traffic and more open space would be required.

This proved correct, and by 1907 the trams were bringing thousands of people into the Square. The City Council gave the Tramway Board permission to build a tram shelter in front of the Godley Statue, thus completely obscuring it from the Cathedral.

Everyone wanted the statue to stay in the Square, but not hidden behind the tram shelter. A deputation from the Cathedral Chapter asked the Mayor whether he would consider moving it to the north side of the Cathedral grounds, which seemed a good idea. This was promptly followed by a combined deputation representing the Old Colonists' Society, the Canterbury Society of Arts, and the Christchurch Beautifying Association.

While the controversy raged the Godley Statue stayed put in its undignified position, made worse of the construction of underground public lavatories beside it. It was not until 1917 that the Council called tenders for the removal of the statue to the Cathedral Grounds.

On March 5, 1918, the statue was placed in its new position. Before a small gathering of citizens the Mayor, H. Holland, said that the council proposed to demolish the tram shelter and build an even larger one which would encroach upon the Godley Block. This move was strongly resisted by George Gould, chairman of the Save the Square Committee, who brought a successful action in the Supreme Court restraining the city council from this intention.

In his judgment Mr Justice Herdman referred to "this peripatetic statue." The Court of Appeal later upheld his decision.

The tram shelter was demolished in 1931. Two years later, after a visit to a stonemason's yard for a thorough cleaning, the Godley statue was restored to is original site in April, 1933.